Preached 21 June 1992 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
1 Peter 2:1-12
It was Saturday morning. I’d gone to Morrisons to do some shopping and suddenly realised I hadn’t enough cash; so I’d walked to the area of the store where you used to be able cash cheques. I hadn’t used the facility before, so, when I got to the counter and saw that there was just one person getting a cheque cashed, I went and stood behind him and began to get my cheque book out. But, before I could do so, there was an angry shout from a few yards behind me. `Oi! Who do you think you are? Get in the queue with the rest of us.’ And when I turned round, there, at the `wait here’ point, was a long line of people, all waiting their turn. Very embarrassing.
The man didn’t expect an answer to his question, of course. He was just putting me in my place – literally! But suppose he had expected an answer. What would I have said? What would you say if someone asked you in all seriousness: `Who do you think you are?’
As many of you know, I go around the country lecturing as part of my job; and, when I accept a lecture engagement, the first thing I’m generally asked for is a `potted autobiography’ in 250 words which can go on the publicity brochures. The idea is that I list my main qualifications, the books I’ve written and the committees I chair and so on, so that the people receiving the brochures will have an idea of who I am.
I suspect that Marc, our new curate, did something similar for Martin a few months ago because each week for the last 8 weeks we’ve been getting a new fact about Marc. We know that he read Theology and Hebrew at Leeds University; that he then worked in a tax office; that he trained for the ministry in Lincoln; that he’s married to Ruth who is a trained secretary and a clarinettist; that they have a 1 year-old daughter, Rebekah; that Marc’s allergic to caffeine and quite likes lager; and that he has six guitars and plays them all, though not at the same time. Fascinating stuff.
So what would you single out for mention if you had to say who you were in 250 words?
And even more interesting, what would you say if you had to tell in 250 words what you think we — all of us here, collectively — are.
`We are the congregation of St James’, Bolton, in the diocese of Bradford. Our vicar is currently Martin Short and our new curate is Marc Cooper. We are a member of the North Bradford Council of Churches. We have a choir and two readers. We have three fellowships which meet fortnightly. We also have a mother’s union, a Wednesday Club for senior citizens, a men’s supper club, various uniformed organisations, a Sunday Club for 3-11 year-olds, and Pathfinders for the older young people. And we hold a wide variety of services’.
Is that the sort of thing we’d come up with?
Well, if it is, it will do us all good to compare that summary with Peter’s summary of who we are in our second lesson tonight. He says to Christians everywhere: `You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. Fourteen words only, but, crumbs, what stunning words they are.
That’s how Peter sees us. That’s how God sees us. But is it how we see ourselves? And what a difference it would make to the way we think and the way we live and the way we do things, if we were to see ourselves in those terms.
Let’s look at Peter’s description of us a little more closely.
You are … a chosen race.
Surely, the Jews are God’s `chosen race’. Isn’t that what our OT reading was all about? Well certainly the Jews were God’s chosen race. Let’s just glance back in history.
About 4000 years ago, an old man called Abraham was standing outside his tent in Haran in present day Syria, looking up at the stars, when he heard a voice speaking to him inside his head. `Leave here and go to the land I will show you’, said the voice. `I will make your children more numerous than the stars and I will build a great nation from you. And, in you, all the nations of the earth will be blessed’. And, despite the childlessness of himself and his aged wife, 75 year-old Abraham believed God, picked up his walking stick and his pension book and foot-slogged it to modern day Palestine. A son, Isaac, was miraculously born to him and Sara, and Isaac’s son was Israel from whom the twelve tribes sprang and from the nation took its name. But 700 years after Abraham had heard God speak to him, the children of Israel were far from being the great nation God had promised. Instead, they were slaves in Egypt, working as forced labour. But then came Moses who, at God’s command, rallied the slave people and took them out of Egypt into the wilderness which lay between Egypt and Canaan – the promised land. There, Moses went up into Mount Sinai to speak with God and, as we heard in the first lesson, God re-affirmed the promise he had made to Abraham and said that, if the people obeyed his voice and kept his covenant with them, they would be more than a great nation — they would be his own chosen race from among all the nations of the earth. And so they became – and remained – for some 400 years. They were transformed from being a nomadic horde of refugees into the promised nation and, under king David, became an empire stretching from Egypt in the south-west to Turkey in the north-east. But, towards the end of the reign of David’s son, Solomon, the rot began to set in. The nation began to assert its independence from God and, not long after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split. The subject nations regained their independence and Israel began on the long slide down into apostasy — rejecting God and his promises. By 700 BC the northern kingdom had fallen prey to Assyria. By 600 BC the southern kingdom had fallen to Babylon; and the following 600 years were a story of exile, return and then constant occupation, latterly by the Romans.
What a mess! What value was God’s promise now? Surely, it had failed?
Not a bit of it. Always, through exile and conquest, there had been those who had continued to hold fast to God’s promise and it was to that remnant that, 1900 years ago, Jesus first went with his offer of a fresh start and a new kind of relationship with God that he, as God’s son, would make possible. Some, but, sadly, not many, accepted it. And the majority committed the ultimate act of rejection by crucifying the Lord of glory. `Not this man, but Barabbas’. `Away with him’. But then came the resurrection and, to those who had accepted him and followed him, the command to `Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation’. The door which had been open only to Jews was now to be opened to all comers. Those originally invited to God’s table had made their excuses and turned away. So now, in the power of the Spirit, it was into the highways and byways and compel them to come in. All people everywhere. All those whom the old Israel had despised and looked down upon. And so began the new Israel, the chosen race of promise.
Who are the chosen race? We are the chosen race; we and all those everywhere in every generation who, in repentance and faith, have received Jesus as their Lord and saviour. A couple of years ago we made friends on holiday with two young Jewish newlyweds on their honeymoon. One night, I said to them that I considered myself as an honorary Jew and a child of Abraham because of my faith in the Lord Jesus. They were most upset? But it’s true. We – you and me – we are the true heirs to that promise made to Abraham under the Syrian stars 4000 years ago.
And what else are we? We are … a royal priesthood – a priesthood belonging to and in the service of the king, the Lord Jesus. A priest is someone who himself has access to God and whose duty and privilege is to bring others to God. In the old Israel, only a few were chosen to be priests, but in the new Israel, all are priests. I used to be a Methodist and one of Methodism’s distinctive doctrines is `the priesthood of all believers’; but it is a doctrine not just of Methodism but of Scripture and one which we, as Anglicans, can and should embrace too.
If we belong to the Lord Jesus we each have access to God and have the duty and privilege of bringing others to God — both in the sense of leading them into the knowledge of Jesus as saviour and Lord, and in the sense of lifting them and their needs and problems to God in prayer. Too often we leave priestly activity to the clergy. And, as laity, we are always quick to criticise the clergy if we think they are falling down on the job and failing to achieve the perfection we demand of them. But perhaps we ought to recognise that, in God’s eyes, we’re all wearing dog collars. We are a royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests.
And what else are we. We are … a holy nation.
`Holy’ is a word we always misunderstand today. The Greek is hagios and the Hebrew is kadosh. And its primary meaning is `different – different by being set apart for God’.
Jerusalem was the holy city because it was different from other cities. In the Old Testament, water and oil became holy once they were set apart for use in religious ceremonies. So did pots and pans and clothing. And the old Israel was holy because, by being devoted to God, it was different from the nations around it. Many Jews today still assert that difference. When I lecture in Manchester, I usually have in my audience a number of accountants who wear black skullcaps and sport black bushy beards. There is no doubting who they are. They stand out in any crowd. But do we?
As God’s true chosen race, as his royal priesthood, we are a holy nation. That is to say, we, along with all Christians throughout the world, form a nation which is different from the nations in which we live — in that we are set apart for God. And that difference ought to be visible and obvious. It ought to be visible — not in skullcaps and beards — but in the purity and goodness of our lives; in the breadth and depth and selflessness of our love for others; in the joy and peace we manifest whatever our circumstances; in the priority we give to God in our lives.
One of the most damning things that can be said to us is `I didn’t know you were a Christian until so-and-so told me the other day.
How different – how holy – are we? Paul always addresses Christians as ‘saints’ in his New Testament letters. The word is the plural of hagios, hagioi, literally `the holy ones’. Am I really Saint Neil? Is that Saint Martin? Is he Saint Peter? And is this Saint Joan sitting behind me? Yes, yes, yes. But if we are, shouldn’t our lives be more different from the lives of those around us than they are?
And, finally, says St Peter (not that one, the one in the Bible): We are … God’s own people — or that’s how the RSV, the pew Bible, puts it. But the phrase in the Greek — laos eis peripoisin — isn’t quite as simple as that. The AV translates it as `a peculiar people’ and some people would say that that’s a very apt translation because we can be very peculiar indeed. But it’s not a good translation. What the Greek really means is `a people for his (that is God’s) own acquiring’.
Have you ever thought what God has on his bedside table? Don’t be silly, you say: God doesn’t have a bedside table. No, he doesn’t. But if he did, our picture would be on it. Just like Yvonne’s picture was on mine before I got her for myself. A peripoisis is a gaining possession, an acquiring. We are the people God dreams about. We are the ones he loves and longs one day to have and to hold.
`Just who do you think you are?’
`Well, actually, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s possession’.